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Understanding Copyright in Music Education

As music educators, we deal with regular copyright issues. Understanding copyright in music education is an ethical practice and goal that we should strive for on a daily basis. These issues may relate to fair use, video recordings, audio recordings, and performances regarding printed music. With the invention of new music distribution and processing services so has come new challenges with music education and business industries.

Most importantly, as music educators, we must stay up-to-date with understanding these technological changes and protect the intellectual rights of musicians. By abiding and filing complaints of mandatory copyright laws, we help preserve the discipline of our artform.

What Exactly is Copyright?

Copyright refers to the right to copy. To clarify, this protects sounds and music from unauthorized revision, reproduction, distribution, and performances. As a result, copyright protects both performance and recordings. Also, owners of the copyright even afford the owner certain rights and privileges that include:

  • Publicly performing copyrighted works.
  • Reproduction of the copyrighted work.
  • Displayed copyrighted work.
  • Public distribution of copyrighted work.


When arranging music, it is helpful to know that a work is automatically protected by copyright law when it is “fixed” in a copy or recording for the first time. In other words, this means that registration is not a requirement under the current law as it stands. However, by registering your music does secure your copyright claim. Consequently, when you publish a work, your music will be copyrighted by the publisher.

To obtain the proper application and form go to to register your music. You can also register your work by completing a form, non-returnable deposit and filing fee to:

Register of Copyrights, Copyright Office, Library of Congress, Washington D.C. 20559.

Public Domain

When a musical work is no longer protected by copyright, it is considered to be in the “public domain.” It is safe to say that any work published before 1923 is in the public domain as a result of having expired copyright. To clarify, this means anyone can use these works. However, it is essential to point out that anyone wishing to create an arrangement of one of these works with a publishing date before 1923 must still receive permission by the copyright owner to do so.

Works published and created after 1923 have the option for renewal. Renewal could extend copyright protection for an additional 70 years. If you wish to conduct your search of copyrighted materials, please visit the Catalog of Copyright Entries

Fair Use

The idea of “Fair Use” refers to the U.S. Statute that allows a limited portion of copyright material to be in use. Fair Use allows copyright material to be in use for purposes such as news reporting, teaching, scholarship, research, criticism, and quotes. Most importantly, you may never claim copyright to someone else’s intellectual property unless you have the owner’s written consent to do so.


KNOW that there is NO fair use when dealing with arranging, editing, transcribing, adapting or orchestrating music. You must send a Request for Permission to Arrange Form to the copyright owner.

KNOW that any arrangement of a musical copyrighted work made WITHOUT permission of the copyright owner is copyright infringement. Doing this results in fines of over $40,000.

Copying Music

Allowed – “Fair Use” for Photocopying Music

  • Emergency copying to replace purchased copies for an imminent performance.
  • For academic purposes other than a performance provided excerpts do not exceed one copy per pupil.
  • Printed copies that have been purchased may be edited or simplified as long as the work is not distorted.

Not Allowed – Actions for Photocopying

  • Copying to create or replace collective works.
  • Copying of or from works that intend to be consumable (ie workbooks, exercises, tests.)
  • Reproduction for the purpose of substituting the purchase of music.
  • Copying without the inclusion of the copyright notice.

Photocopying from Books

There are limitations from photocopying from books and periodicals that fall under copyright law, under “Fair Use.” The guidelines for this include:

  • Single copying for teachers
    • A chapter from a book
    • Article from a periodical
    • As a short story
    • A chart graph or diagram

  • Multiple copies for classroom use
    • The copying meets the test of brevity
    • The copying meets the cumulative test
    • Each copy includes a notice of copyright


Until 1972 Federal Law did not protect sound recordings. The copyright owner is the only one allowed to reproduce recordings and sheet music. However, it is important to note that there are some fair use of music education limitations. These include:

  • A single copy of a recording may be made of performances for the evaluation or rehearsal purposes made by the teacher.
  • A single copy of sound recording may be made and kept by the teacher for the purpose of aural exercises, and examinations.

Copyright – Musical Recordings With Your Own Ensemble

Anyone, under certain guidelines, can record their group (in order to produce a CD that you can sell) as long as they do the following:

  • Receive permission to record by contacting the copyright owner.
  • Obtain a Compulsory Mechanical License (Requirement of the Copyright Act of 1976)

Music Educators Performing Copyright Music With Their Own Performing Ensembles

It is essential to understand that copyright owners have exclusive rights to their intellectual property. However, music educators have flexible limitations of copyright law for educational use. Music educators are not considered infringing doing the following:

  • Performance of copyright material by instructors or pupils in the course of the face-to-face teaching activities.
  • Performance of non-dramatic literary or musical work on a closed circuit. This must be part of the systematic set of instructional activities.
  • Performance of non-dramatic literary or musical work at a school concert if there is no purpose of direct or indirect commercial purpose.
  • Performance of non-dramatic literary or musical work of a religious nature.

Music on the Internet

Any public performances of copyrighted material must receive permission for the performance by the copyright owner. This means if you wish to place a recording of your band’s performance on its website, it is still considered a public performance. As a result, you MUST receive permission from each copyright owner to post it on the site.

To obtain a digital music license visit:

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, copyright law is a somewhat complicated concept. It is my recommendation if you decide to monetize your musical efforts, to consult copyright professionals. There are plenty of resources available to avoid copyright infringement. Most importantly, please view my list of sources for additional information regarding copyright law and how it relates to music education.


Jagow, S. (2008). Teaching instrumental music developing the complete band program. Galesville, MD: Meredith Music Publ.

National Association for Music Education (NAfME). (n.d.). Retrieved from

National Association for Music Education (NAfME). (n.d.). Retrieved from

National Association for Music Education (NAfME). (n.d.). Retrieved from

The Harry Fox Agency. (n.d.). Retrieved from

U.S. Copyright Office. (n.d.). Retrieved from 



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